For two decades Bilbao-born Jesús Arámbarri was one of Spain's most sought-after conductors. Several of his EMI recordings retain an honourable place in the catalogue, but until recently his own music was largely forgotten. Arámbarri all but gave up composition after the Civil War, though given his near-total dependence on the folksongs of his homeland, it's easy to suspect that the creative fires never burned especially brightly. At his best he writes intelligent, strongly-crafted kapellmeister music of spare elegance, qualities clearly outlined in Santiago Gorostiza's illuminating notes to this Naxos issue.
The lively prelude Gabon-zar sorgiñak, Eight Basque Songs, and oddly Tchaikovskian "In Memoriam" all appeared in Vol.III of Claves's Basque Music Collection (reviewed July 2000). Direct comparison between Cristian Mandeal and Juan José Mena reveals an extra precision and flexibility to the Romanian's conducting as well as superior colour and depth to Claves's demonstration quality recording. In the Songs, the capable Itxaro Mentxaka does not command María Bayo's lustrous finesse, and it's a pity Naxos provide no texts.
Having said which, Mena's Bilbao Orchestra play every bit as well as their Basque National colleagues. Most of the Claves CD was given over to the uninspiring ballet Aiko-Maiko; and though strictly by the clock the Naxos couplings are twenty minutes shorter they are much more satisfying. The south wind eddies mysteriously through the enigmatic Intermedio from Arámbarri's 1952 zarzuela Viento Sur, and the heartfelt Ofrenda in memory of de Falla (1946) belies its mere three-and-a-bit minutes' compass. Last but not least, the Fantasia española freshens up the inevitable "Spanishries" with some spiky harmonies and astringent, chamber scoring.
Despite the virtues of the Claves collection, this superbargain Naxos leaves a more positive overall impression, and for anyone interested in exploring Arámbarri's pleasant if hardly earth-shaking musical personality, this is definitely the place to start.
© Christopher Webber 2003